In the wonderful world of Scottish theatre made for children and young people, Shona Reppe is an absolute superstar, a writer, director, performer, designer and maker who combines immense creative gifts with irresistible levels of charm and wit. Over the last 15 years, she has created shows that range from miniaturist masterpieces such as Cinderella and The Curious Scrapbook Of Josephine Bean, to disturbingly brilliant solo shows Magic Sho and Olga Volt. Last year, her 2018 collaboration with Australian theatre makers Christine Johnston and Rosemary Myers - a brilliantly witty and vivid 21st century version of the old Russian fairytale Baba Yaga - won a raft of CATS nominations for theatre in Scotland; and she has also collaborated with other Scottish-based artists on internationally acclaimed children’s shows including Catherine Wheels’s White, and Red Bridge’s recent hit Black Beauty.
Last autumn, though, Reppe decided to try her hand at something slightly different, in the shape of a brilliantly absurdist show about modern art truly designed for all the family, in that it seemed - during its short run at the Traverse last November - to appeal equally to everyone, in audiences that genuinely ranged from 8 to 80. Created in collaboration with French director Charlotte Lemoine, composer Fabien Cartolade, and also featuring Reppe’s partner Tamlin Wilshire on sound desk, the show invited audiences to view a pop-up exhibition of work by the acclaimed but mysterious contemporary artist Atlantis Banal, born on an island somewhere between Scotland and Norway, raised by an aunt who was a sardine-packer and an uncle who was a dry-cleaner from Fife, and struck by lightning at an early age; and in a single hour, it offered Reppe the chance to play a whole range of characters, including a hyper-hospitable exhibition usher, the super-academic curator of the show, and of course, the gorgeous Atlantis herself, arrayed in a range of costumes that are themselves major works of art.
The brilliance of Atlantis Banal, though, is that it somehow manages both to satirise the world of contemporary art, and to celebrate it. The exhibition itself - titled Beneath The Surface - is glorious, full of gorgeous instant installations on a vaguely marine theme, including a dress of lights that conjures up the magical world of sea fish, and a gorgeous evocation of Atlantis itself, through a green cloak that transforms into a miniature landscape. If the show sends up some of the wilder aspects of conceptual art, in other words, it also revels in the spirit of play and possibility, and the inspired re-framing of the ordinary, that drives the best of it; and it asks that question “what is art” in ways that invite a response from the widest possible audience, and that tend to open the question up, rather than shut it down.
Here, in a fragment from the opening of the show, Reppe plays first the staff member who invites us into the exhibition, then the expert curator who has put it together. In sequence, they lead us towards our first encounter with the artist and her work. And it’s a measure of Shona Reppe’s quality, as a performer and a maker of art, that in just three and a half minutes - with the help of a few video clips, and with no set at all beyond a cupboard at her Edinburgh home - she draws us so far into the magical world of Atlantis Banal that when the moment comes, we can’t wait to take a deep breath, plunge in, and join her, beneath the surface.
Find out more about Shona Reppe at https://www.shonareppe.co.uk/shows.html
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